Op-Ed

Can poetry save your life?

I am a child sitting at my wooden flip-top desk in my fourth-grade classroom listening to Miss Hudson read “The Road Not Taken,” Robert Frost’s poem about two paths and a crossroad. Miss Hudson is in love with literature. She gestures madly as she recites the verse, revealing the sweat rings on her dress, saliva forming in the corner of her mouth.

I look at my classmates sitting at identical desks, the sunlight showing the ink stains, carved initials, and cracks in the wood. One girl is tall and big with a beautiful face and curly white-blond hair. Another has skinny legs and wears knee-high socks. Another is the class bombshell. The boy in the back row has a “Vote for Kennedy” button pinned on his peacoat. I imagine my classmates lead perfect lives with perfect families. Are they equally mesmerized?

My face is round and my hair is cut short around my face, bangs held back with a bobby pin. I am an awkward child, ill at ease among others. The humiliations are growing: I’m embarrassed at how ridiculous I look in my short, blue, one-piece gym suit. I worry I’ll be picked last for capture the flag. In music class I dread having to sing scales. I can barely keep my chin up or will myself not to blush when I’m called on.

And then Miss Hudson reads us this poem.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

Robert Frost (1874–1963)

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I —

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

My father died when I was 2. He suffered a heart attack while bowling in a couples’ league at the local alley. Once, I thought it was playing basketball. The stories morph into their own memory and shape. I imagine him thrusting the bowling ball up against his chest, cradling it, letting it go, the ball spinning down the aisle, knocking down all the pins, and then, in an instant, all the lights go out. I cannot imagine any further. At night, I lie in my bed and think about my father, as if to will him into memory from the pictures my mother keeps in a photo album. When I look at his face in the photos I try to find myself in it. Do I have his eyes, his mouth, his intellect? I know I don’t possess his athletic prowess. My mother is a young widow with three children under the age of 3. There is no language in my home or my sheltered suburban world to help me understand how that one event marked my life.

As a young girl, I hear my own story in “The Road Not Taken.” There are two roads: the road where families are whole and not broken, and fathers don’t die young, and mothers are happy — where everything fits together like pieces in a puzzle; and the road I travel, which is crooked and not quite right, with bumps along the way.

I struggle in math and science. Reading books has already trumped all else, and through Frost I discover a language where words are organized to convey feeling and meaning. The clear voice of the poet comes through the mouth of Miss Hudson. The voice is intimate and commanding and through the verse’s descriptive powers, I read my own experience in its narrative. In essence, I intuit the poet in solitary thought and take to the richness and layers of meaning hunkered in the words.

My father’s early death separates me from my peers who I presume have not borne witness to sorrow, though of course they too must have suffered their own private losses and catastrophes. A child always thinks she is alone in her misery. In our small circle of family and friends, my sisters and I are known as my mother’s poor daughters. Tragedy makes us self-conscious. When we enter a room people stare. I wonder if our faces are somehow marked by our father’s death in a way I can’t see. If only someone would talk about what’s happened to us, but fear keeps conversation at bay. Death is a hush-hush topic, something nice people don’t discuss.

When Miss Hudson recites “The Road Not Taken,” I form a picture in my mind. One road is worn and tended. The other — overgrown, shaded and magical — calls out to me. By traveling it, what life might I discover? There’s more than one way, and suddenly I’m included. I belong. My imagination has given me a coping skill. A way to interpret my own reality through the power of a poem. Poems can be read for many reasons. For the pleasure of interpreting meaning, for the cadences and images, for what a poem can convey. The wonder of a poem is how the reader, through the act of imagination, can insert herself into it, and travel along its roads.

When I was desperate for tenderness and love, poems were a source of comfort. I was aware that another person had spent time writing them, that they were an act of generosity and devotion to their readers. In a strange way, poetry replaced the less interesting, emptier life I’d have lived had I not discovered it.

A poem doesn’t just have one life or one influence on a single life — like mine — however lasting. It also has an afterlife. That after-existence in the memory of the reader can be intellectually, analytically, even technically focused, while still preserving the integrity and wonder of the first encounter. Did “The Road Not Taken” save me from the shame I felt as a young child, growing up without a father? If we can be saved by what shores us up “how way leads on to way,” then without a doubt it did.

Jill Bialosky is a poet and editor. This piece is adapted from her latest book, the just-published memoir “Poetry Will Save Your Life.”

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